Hazelwood 11-year-old goes viral for launching book club for boys

It was a heavy question to ask the group.

“Imagine you are ‘the man’ in your hometown, and you get kidnapped and taken to become a slave. How would you feel?” Shawn Filer, 18, asked.

“I’d be angry,” one of the boys said.

A moment later, another boy jumped up and broke into smooth dance moves in the middle of the circle that was talking about “The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano.”

Filer smiled at Corion Henderson, 12, who had popped up a few times to show off his moves. This is how the discussion flows in this book club for tween boys that meets monthly in a converted fire station in Ferguson.

The club’s founder, 11-year-old Sidney Keys III, is a wiry kid in glasses, whose voice cracks occasionally while leading the meet-ups with the help of a “big bro” volunteer who keeps the group in check. This Sunday they are all wearing gray T-shirts that say “Cool Bros Read.”

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Books and Bros

Members of the Books and Bros book club gathered Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, at the Ferguson Youth Initiative in Ferguson, to celebrate the one anniversary of the club. Sidney Keys III, 11, founder of the club has received national and local attention for his efforts. Photo by Odell Mitchell Jr.

photos by Odell Mitchell Jr.

It was over a year ago that Sidney went viral in a Facebook Live video that his mom posted. It showed him engrossed in a book at EyeSeeMe, a St. Louis bookstore that focuses on books featuring African-American characters, culture and figures. Winnie Caldwell, Sidney’s mom, had planned a surprise trip for her son to the unique store as soon as she heard about it.

“I just wanted him to be able to see books with characters who look like him,” she said. Caldwell, 28, had recently come back from a blogging conference where she attended a session on Facebook Live strategies. She was so impressed by the bookstore, she figured it was worth sharing and decided to try out the technology. She live-streamed a six-minute video of Sidney reading on the floor and gave a tour of the store. The video ended up being viewed 65,000 times.

“If I had known it was going to go viral, I would have put on some makeup,” Caldwell laughs.

She talked to store owner, Pamela Blair, about how to build on the momentum to encourage literacy among children. She and Sidney talked about a book club for boys his age.

“I said something corny like, book club for boys, and he was like, no,” she said.

“I came up with Books and Bros,” Sidney said. Caldwell, an entrepreneur and social media maven, created a website within a few weeks and started promoting the idea on her Facebook, Instagram and blog.

When they launched, any boy between the ages of 8 and 12 could sign up for $20 a month to receive the monthly book selection with a curriculum she designs, a snack and small prize, along with an invitation to a meet up. They’ve got nearly 60 boys signed up so far, and about 10 live outside the St. Louis area. (Now, the membership is $25).

The day before the one-year anniversary party of the club, she and Sidney packed boxes with books, a bag of chips and trinkets to be mailed out to their subscribers. Blair typically suggests a few titles for Sidney to consider, and he goes to the store to peruse each book before deciding.

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Books and Bros

Corion Henderson, 12, a member of Books and Bros book club, keeps his eye on the computer as it streams the celebration of the club during its meeting Sunday Sept. 10, 2017, at the Ferguson Youth Initiative in Ferguson. The book club’s founder, Sidney Keys III, 11, has received national and local attention for starting the club that features African-American literature. Photo by Odell Mitchell Jr.

Photographer: Odell Mitchell Jr.

He looks for action-packed books that hook him from the start.

“I don’t like books that take a long time to figure out,” he said. Once he stayed in the bookstore until he got to chapter five of a possible pick, while his mother waited.

“I can’t leave yet,” he said. “I have to figure out if I like this book.”

Sidney’s book club idea and his mom’s video attracted national attention, and even got a shout-out in O, The Oprah Magazine.

The group has moved into the Ferguson Youth Initiative space as they’ve added members, which has a game lounge downstairs. African-American authors have donated books, writers have come to speak to the boys and volunteers help lead the discussion groups each month.

Sidney said the visit to EyeSeeMe made him realize how few books in his school library featured African-American characters.

That’s exactly why Filer, a McCluer high school graduate headed to Stanford University this fall, decided to get involved.

“They are not going to read about kidnapped African princes in school,” he said. A key to keeping boys, who read at lower rates than girls, is by keeping them engaged and connected to the content.

The 2016 Kids and Family Reading Report by Scholastic found that boys trail girls in reading outside of school assignments. A larger percentage of boys (45 percent) say they struggle to find books they like.

The book club has done more than just bring together boys who like to read. It’s even given valuable feedback to a budding author.

Michael “Mikey” Wren, 10, was looking for a book club to join, but they were all aimed for girls. He’s been part of Books and Bros since the beginning. In fact, one of their official selections is a soft-cover, self-published book he wrote, “Mikey Learns About Business,” a story based on his experience starting a vending machine business.

“Everything in that book is true except the briefcase,” he said. The story features a magical briefcase that mentors Mikey and helps him come up with a business plan. The briefcase character is based on his mom, he said.

He remembers clearly the one criticism the book club members offered about his story when they read it. In the book, he wrote that Mikey wore “black pants, white shirt and a sport-themed tie” when he went to a networking event for business owners. The illustration showed him in a red tie, blue pants and shirt.

This book has sold nearly a thousand copies, and he’s already working on the next one: “Mikey Learns About Banking.” He’s taken the reader feedback to heart. He plans to keep a close eye on the text and illustrations.

“I’m going to make sure that they match,” he said.

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